A Rich Art Made Poor

In my book A Dancer On Dance, the chapter on Kathakali is titled 'A Poor Man's Rich Art.' Considering the transformation Kathakali has undergone since, I should perhaps describe it now as 'a rich art made poor'. The richness of Kathakali is derived from its training methodology; highly stylised hasta mudra-s and angika abhinaya (body language); principles of costume and make-up that follow the traditions of silpa sastra and samudrika lakshana; the aesthetic atmosphere that goes with a Kerala temple; the music that goes with the mood of the story and its characters; its literary content; and its actors who are expected to be well versed in various aspects of the art-form.

Kalari & Arangu Kali

 There seems to be a vast difference today between what goes on in the kalari (classroom) and arangu kali, the performance on the stage. The intricate rhythms and movements practised in the kalari are not presented on the stage. And, though the performer undergoes training in the kalari which prepares him to perform on the stage, the elaborate make-up and costume used on stage are, to an extent, hindrances to executing the beautiful body exercises. Kalaripayattu abhyasam (martial arts) and  integral part of Kathakali training, but I believe this is not so now.

What we quite often see now during the performance is a wishy- washy marking of the steps. Certain technical norms such as the ardhamandala (half-seated) position, vattamvekkal (placing of the feet), kuttukaal and parundukaal (pada bhedas), errattivattam (adavu patterns), etc., are often not executed on the stage with precision. Each mudra is supposed to be held in certain 'sthanakam' (posture) and 'mandalasthana' (position) and there is a prescribed procedure for arriving at a particular gesture. All this is ignored in Kathakali presentations of today. I am not able to assess whether this is due to lack of training, or to lack of attention or total indifference to the stylisation.

In order to appeal to lay viewers, a lot of lokadharmi is employed in depicting characters without reference to the dignity and decorum of the concerned characters in the play. Some of the satvika characters (in minukku vesham) and also kingly characters are shown gesticulating comically, compromising their dignity. This was never done earlier. I remember that my guru Chandu Panikkar, a very strict disciplinarian, insisted that the dignity of the role should be maintained at all costs. Thus, he expected that even the manodharma aspect or the extempore innovations should reflect the basic nature and character of the role enacted; and that the kulam (family), gotram (genealogical group), varnam (brahmana, kshatriya, vaisya or soodra), the specie-type of the character (deva or manusha— god or human) should be well understood and conceived by the nata (actor) through study and discussion .Alankara sastra defines the characteristics of different kinds of human behaviour and artists dealing with histrionics have to study those tenets as well in order to be able to portray the chracters they are depicting in a proper manner. But do present-day Kathakali performers do so?

Natyadharmi is prescribed for characters of high calibre and lokadharmi is allowed to a certain extent in depicting characters of lower types. Compromise of these inherent aspects results not only in comical gesticulations and superficial abhinaya, but in diminishing the richness of the art itself. 

Costumes & Make-up

 Considerable changes have occured in the well-structured costumes and chutti makeup used in Kathakali. The 'uduttukettu' (the skirt-like costume worn below the waist) has become over-sized and incongruent vis-a-vis the headgear. To economise in the use of 'vaal' (bits of white homespun cotton material), pillows and gunny bags are used. These are not only unhygienic but unaesthetic too. Often, when the characters bend forward or prostrate before another character, the audience gets a view which is far from aesthetic . The original 'uduttukettu' was worn very artistically with long 'vaal' in two or three levels draped evenly to cover the legs and other parts. The coloured pyjamas which the Kathakali actors nowadays wear under the skirts often do not match the colour of the 'uduttukettu'; hence they look ugly and incongruous.

With the introduction of white paper flaps, the chutti has also become over-sized, and sometimes, for certain faces, it sticks out of the frame of the 'kirectam' (headgear). It is especially so in the case of the mudi vesham where the performer sports a smaller headgear. If a large chutti is used, the face looks grotesque instead of divine. Attention should be paid to such simple things too.

 In the past, it was understood that eye make-up should be used to shape the eyes to make them seem larger in size, to go with the headgear and costume. Of late, I have seen the eyes and eyebrows drawn in an unshapely manner, or made too sharp, which gives a harsh look to divine characters. In my younger days, guru Chandu Panikkar taught us the nuanced use of different linings for different characters which really brought out the 'sthayi' (the basic nature) of a particular character. I wonder whether teachers now pay attention to such details or whether they just leave it to the students to copy others.

Stree Vesham

 The costume and makeup for women characters in Kathakali has been a controversial subject. Somehow this falls short of the highly imaginative and sophisticated nature of the male costume and make-up in Kathakali. People have often remarked that stree vesham does not conform to Kerala Hindu feminine attributes. This could be mainly due to the flimsy, diaphanous and totally unaesthetic veil worn along with the 'kondakkettu' (hairdo) and the 'kurunira' (the jewel on the forehead). The original 'chakalasu kuppaayam'— Stree vesham long-sleeve flannel shirt worn by women characters is now made of glitzy material with plastic-zari work. This is totally alien to the dress culture of Kerala. A couple of decades ago, women characters wore the 'jerivaal' (beautifully pleated white sari) which added a touch of fullness to the figure (very similar to what the Mohini Attam dancers wear). Nowadays we see oversized skirts which compete with the 'uduttukettu' of male characters. This looks absurd and the feminine charm is totally lost.

 Over and above this physical absurdity, we see some of the performers who specialise in female roles, both young and old, trying to imitate the histrionics of film heroines with their non-stylised abhinaya. Under the pretext of emphasising softness in body movements, the performers do not hold the mudra-s the way they should be held. The typical and characteristic nritta patterns designed for such roles are also not executed with firmness. Here again, the rich Kathakali technique is made poor.

Stage & Green Room

Kathakali is said to be a temple art and the sanctity attached to a temple or a pooja room must be maintained in the performing area. There was a time when Kathakali actors (like the performers in Koodiyattam and Chakyar Koothu) underwent certain austerities before putting on the vesham. Besides, following the prescribed ritualistic norms, they took care to keep the place of work as a place of worship. This was— and is— in keeping with our culture. Once the aniyara vilakku (the oil lamp in the green room) is lit, no one should be allowed inside with footwear, nor is one allowed to smoke or drink. Today we see these no-no's are largely disregarded, lowering the sanctity attached to the art. Once I heard a group of young boys exclaiming: "Hey look, Krishna [the actor costumed as Krishna] is smoking!" This lapse on the part of the actor signified a lack of the required self-discipline which he should have imbibed in the kalari itself.

 Nowadays, although we perform the auspicious ritual of lighting the lamp before the start of a performance, the stage is often dirty, people walk around wearing chappals, and some musicians and performers have been seen moving away from the wings in order to smoke.

While the musicians and drummers are clad in the traditional Kerala mundu and angavastram tied around the waist, the two men holding the tiraseela are sometimes an eyesore. On occasion I have seen tiraseela-holders on stage dresssed in trousers and shirt and wearing shoes, holding a crumpled tiraseela clumsily! This is pathetic and is certainly not in tune with the noble and unearthly character who emerges from behind the piece of cloth.

Over and above all this, we often get to see a large and crooked banner in English as a backdrop to the priestlylooking musicians. The jarring poster on the stage, announcing the name of the organisation or of the sponsor, is another terrible eyesore. No one pays attention to these simple details which, if properly taken care of, would go a long way in enhancing the aesthetics and sophistication of the rich artform which Kathakali is. Kathakali on television A number of viewers and connoisseurs of the art have complimented the Tiruvanantapuram Kendra of Doordarshan for presenting Kathakali performances against a simple and aesthetic backdrop. This should be an eye-opener to the organisers of Kathakali performances elsewhere, whether it be in the precincts of a temple, a club or a hall.


I have given an overview of the Kathakali scene today. There are excellent Kathakali artists who do not compromise on quality, though many of them may not be very popular. A few Kathakali asan-s (guru-s) have introduced a number of new intricate kalasam-s (nritta sequences). We do find excellent musicians, both vocal and instrumental, with consummate knowledge of Carnatic music. Nonetheless, there is a growing fear among the Kathakali enthusiasts in Kerala that the rich art is getting poorer by the day. They fervently hope that another Vallathol Narayana Menon will emerge to save the art-form once again.

I have made these comments to draw attention to certain lacuna which have crept into the art-form; these are not accusations directed at any one in particular. I hope rational-minded people will ponder over these suggestions and try to improve the situation.